Paul Stomper '72
For those in the education field, it's impossible to quantify how ideas relayed in a classroom setting resonate in students' lives. For Paul Stomper '72, however, comments written in his notes from a jazz history course he took with Larry Monroe almost four decades ago have stuck with him. Monroe told the class, "A beautiful thing about jazz is that there is an innate beauty in limited technique," and "Human experience doesn't relate to perfection, so imperfect music is better." For Stomper, who calls himself a lifelong student of jazz bass clarinet, those words said, "There's hope."
While Stomper has played a few good gigs along the way (such as recording with banjo master Tony Trischka and performing with Leroy Jenkins and Yoko Ono), music has been in the shadows of his distinguished career as a medical doctor. Throughout, Stomper has maintained a reverence for concepts learned from studying jazz and the lives of jazz musicians and incorporated them into his work in cancer treatment and research.
Stomper's parents noticed his interest in music at a very young age. "My love for music began to grow and expand when I was able to reach the radio dial," he says. Like many boys, he was also drawn to sports, and his interest in medicine developed around the same time. "When I was 10, I went to a cancer institute with my grandmother, who was diagnosed with advanced cancer," Stomper recalls. "I was immediately inspired by the faith of some of the people with cancer and those who cared for them. I knew then that helping people with cancer would be a calling. I hoped I would do it as a professional musician or athlete."
In his late teen years, Stomper won a scholarship to attend Berklee after his performance as a tenor saxophone and bass clarinet soloist in Berklee's 1971 Berklee High School Jazz Festival. Professor Phil Wilson and Berklee founder Lawrence Berk supported Stomper's use of the scholarship for the summer semester of 1972, despite the fact that Stomper had enrolled as a premed student at Syracuse University and most likely would never attend more than one semester at Berklee. Wilson believed that "jazz education had a greater role in modern education and hoped I might someday make some contribution in the field," relates Stomper. After his summer semester at Berklee, Stomper returned to his medical studies.
"During my first week on a cancer ward as a medical student," he recalls, "we cared for a man dying of lung cancer. He was often alone and depressed and didn't talk much. He told me he had played jazz trumpet. That night I brought him a cassette tape player and some Miles and Coltrane tunes. It was heaven on earth for him, and the nursing staff was amazed. The music connected both of us to those musicians and to many others in our lives. We both felt alive and listened to that tape until the man passed on. I've since told my staff not to become part of the wall but to bring the outside in and take time to share. We need to connect as people. Music truly is a universal language and can shake the dust off our souls."
An Enduring Thread
Stomper graduated magna cum laude from the premedical honors program at Syracuse University with a B.S. in biochemistry and a minor in music. He received his M.D. degree at the SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse in 1978. In 1982, he became the first fellow in oncologic radiology (cancer diagnostic imaging) at Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School. He was later appointed as an assistant professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Between 1990 and 2004, Dr. Stomper served on the staff of Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York.
In his distinguished medical career, he wrote the Cancer Imaging Manual and more than 100 articles on cancer and providing emotional support for cancer patients in peer-reviewed medical journals. Working with those who triumph over cancer and those who succumb to it stretched his intellect as well as his soul.
In 2005, Dr. Stomper retired from his academic medical practice and began his Come Sunday lay ministry, taking the name from the title of the song by Duke Ellington. The song's lyric "I don't mind the grey skies, 'cuz they're just clouds passing by" is central to his message. In 2006, with Karen A. Walker, he wrote the book Come Sunday: Inspiration for Living with Heart in which Dr. Stomper's interests in medicine, sports, and music converge. It's a collection of brief inspirational thoughts and stories from such disparate sources as Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Mother Teresa, sports and political personalities, Dr. Stomper's medical colleagues, Holocaust survivors, the Bible, and more (visit www.comesunday.net).
"The Come Sunday grass-roots journey and lay ministry is the next season of my vocation," he says. "It's an ongoing discovery and celebration of the connections among musicians, athletes, and the heroes I call 'cancer victors' and 'victors of faith.'" These days, Dr. Stomper travels extensively as a public speaker. Mindful of his years of medical studies and as a professor himself, Dr. Stomper calls Phil Wilson, Larry Monroe, and his former high-school band directors Neil Hartwick and Tom Everett "as influential as any professors, doctors, and coaches I've ever known."
Completing the circle some 30-plus years after he attended Berklee, Dr. Stomper walked into Phil Wilson's office at Berklee, reintroduced himself, and showed him the manuscript of his book. And he has since shared it with musicians backstage at the Newport, Saratoga, and Rochester jazz festivals and elsewhere.
"I feel strongly that my story has a universal message regarding the impact of jazz education. I am forever indebted to the jazz educators in my life." Proof positive: Paul Stomper is still playing his bass clarinet.